Persons of the Year—2020

by Professor S Abdallah Schleifer
Professor Emeritus of Journalism 
The American University in Cairo

Woman of the Year

Rashida Tlaib, US Congresswoman

American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (Democrat, Michigan) is this year’s Muslim 500 Woman of the Year. She is the first Palestinian-American woman and joint first Muslim woman (along with Ilhan Omar (Democrat, Minnesota) to be elected to the American Congress as member of the House of Representatives. (see their respective bios on page ). She took her individual oath of office with her hand on the Quran.  Although she is serving her first term in office she is certainly one of the most publicized members, largely because of President Trump who has publicly accused her and three other congresswomen of colour (collectively known as ‘the squad’) of hating America and saying that they should “go back to where they came from”—a trope that has been used by white American nativists (a polite way to refer to racists) since the 19th century responding to waves of immigrants—Irish, Italians, Jews (overwhelmingly from Russia and Poland), Latin Americans (popularly referred to as Hispanics) ignoring or oblivious to the fact that while Tlaib’s parents are Palestinian immigrants, Tlaib was born in America, so the best she could do is go back to Detroit.

Although Trump has denounced all of ‘The Squad’ he seems particularly obsessed with the Muslim congresswomen. They represent all that he despises. Apart from their faith, gender, and ethnic background, both are professed socialists. Tlaib is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and Omar, while not a member of the DSA, has expressed a sympathy for democratic socialism. Both support the various welfare state measures proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders. President Trump has referred to their politics as “socialist-communist.” Is Trump so ignorant not to know that first in Russia and then nearly three decades later in eastern Europe no party suffered under Communist rule as much as the Social Democrats (invariably the name of democratic socialist parties in Central and Eastern Europe)? Or is Trump malignant in his not at all exceptional indifference to the truth?

But the most malicious move undertaken by Trump against the two Congresswomen involves his aborting their trip to Israel and the occupied West Bank. Both women are outspoken critics of Israel and in particular of its occupation of Arab Jerusalem and the West Bank and the Israeli treatment of Palestinians in general and they support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) movement against Israel. But even pro-Israeli American Jewish organizations did not call upon Israel to refuse them permission to visit. They were after all, members of Congress—a branch of the American government, but on the eve of their travel Trump publicly called upon Netanyahu not to admit them. Netanyahu caved, and declared on the eve of their trip that they were banned because they supported the BDS movement, as if that were a new discovery of his. A number of Senators and Congressmen, including Republicans as well as Democrats, including Jews as well as Muslims and Christians were critical of Trump’s move. More than the American public, the people who are most embarrassed by Netanyahu’s compliance to Trump’s malignant suggestion, are the Israelis. Until this incident no people in the word were more pro-Trump than the Israeli public. So there is a certain sense of cosmic judgement to their sense of shame. Tlaib was subsequently given permission to visit her ailing 90 year grandmother in the occupied West Bank, but she declined as the permission came along with restrictive measures. Tlaib has stood her ground, undaunted by the abusive and racist comments of the President and his supporters. In September 2019, Tlaib fired back by calling for the President’s impeachment, saying “Trump cannot exist as a lawless president. Please rise up. This is the time. This is a historic time in our country and we need everyone’s voice”. She has shown great strength and dignity in face of the huge pressure being exerted on her and this has made her an inspiration across the globe.

Man of the Year

HE Imran Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan

If The Muslim 500 was in print back in 1992 and I was then Chief Editor I would have nominated Imran Khan as our Muslim Man of the Year because of his brilliant performance in cricket, which culminated in Pakistan winning the 1992 Cricket World Cup—a sport I have always admired for its combination of elegance and intense competitive play.

I also was touched when Khan launched a successful fund raising campaign to establish a hospital devoted to both the care of victims of cancer as well as research. This was his magnificent response to the loss of his mother to cancer in 1985 and given Khan’s extraordinary popularity with Pakistanis both at home as well as among the large number of Pakistani expats along with his own, no doubt, generous personal contribution—he raised sufficient funds so that by 1994 the Shaoukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital opened its doors in Lahore. 75 percent of its patients receive free-care.

Khan became Prime Minister of Pakistan in 2018 after 22 years devoted to building an opposition political party committed to reform; confronting Pakistan’s civilian political establishment over the issue of embedded corruption and mismanagement. This and his other accomplishments are detailed in the biography that accompanies his ranking (Number 16) in this, the latest edition of The Muslim 500. But what is particularly to his credit is that upon taking office in August 2018 Khan made it quite clear that one of his top priorities was to work for a lasting peace with India. He wanted to normalize relations through trade, and settling the Kashmir dispute, “the foremost impediment” in the Prime Minister’s own words “to the normalization of relations between us.” Both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. And with the three past examples of conventional armed conflict in mind the Prime Minster had to be more conscious than anyone in Pakistan that in face of India’s great depth in land, population and the size of its armed forces, conventional warfare was a route that would lead to disaster for Pakistan.

In his first television broadcast as Prime Minister, Khan addressed not just the people of Pakistan and the world, but in particular India—Khan declared that Pakistan wanted a lasting peace with India and “if it took one step forward, we would take two steps.” Khan didn’t wait for that one step. A meeting between the Pakistani and Indian Foreign Ministers was arranged on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2018 but India cancelled the meeting. That September, Khan also wrote the first of his three letters to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling for dialogue and lasting peace. Modi did not respond. Khan says that while all his efforts to start a dialogue were rebuffed by India, he and his cabinet assumed that Modi’s increasingly hard-lined positions and his rhetoric against Pakistan were aimed at whipping up a nationalist frenzy among the Indian voters with an eye to the Indian elections.

Khan writes that after Modi’s re-election in June he congratulated him and expressed his hope that they could work together for peace, progress and prosperity in South Asia. One month later, Khan repeated his hopes in still another letter to Modi. Again Modi, as in all previous cases, chose not to respond.

Of course, there is a certain and perhaps necessary apparent naiveté to Imran’s Khan’s efforts for a lasting peace as demonstrated in India’s openly aggressive behaviour in August 2019, imposing a military curfew in the Indian-occupied portion of Kashmir, and the arrest of thousands of Kashmiris in Occupied Kashmir and in India.

As Imran Khan knows, this is not the India those of us old enough to remember and think of when we read or hear the name “India”—the India of Mahatma Gandhi, the Congress Party as led by Nehru, or the Gandhi family and their partisans. India’s present Prime Minister and his own ruling party which ended Congress rule were shaped by the Hindu Supremacist movement—Rashtriya, Sawayamseval Sangh (the RSS)—Modi and several of his ministers remain members of this movement which can be described as a form of Hindu religious fascism. Modi is particularly reverent about one of the leading founders of the R.S.S. who wrote: “To keep up the purity of the race and the culture, (Hitler’s) Germany shocked the world by purging the country of the Semitic Races—the Jews. National pride at its highest has been manifest here…a good lesson for us in Hindustan for us to learn and profit by.”

So, this is Imran Khan’s great dilemma—how do you make a much desired lasting peace with a nation governed by those who have neither interest nor need to make a lasting peace with Pakistan, and against whom any form of war would be hopeless. The answer it would seem that Khan’s efforts must now focus on mobilizing global opinion, to turn a R.S.S.- led India a global pariah. With his impressive column in the New York Times and the sudden burst of public activity by some of Khan’s touring ministers and ambassadors in America, Europe and perhaps in Asia, that appears to be now underway.